US election: a two-donkey race

Why Bush and Kerry remain neck-and-neck.

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

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With both the Republican and Democrat conventions finally wrapped up, American voters now have only 60 more days of campaigning to endure before the 2004 US presidential election.

By all accounts the election will be close. Barring a dramatic event like the capture of Osama bin Laden or a new terrorist attack within the USA, it is difficult to see how either candidate will become a clear front-runner in the race.

Of course, each campaign has had its moments. Following the Democrat convention in early August, support surged behind Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Now, with the Republicans in the limelight, support will no doubt rally behind President Bush. But in a couple of weeks, when the convention dust settles, the race will probably once again become too close to call.

In some ways the Democrats have only themselves to blame for the fact that the country remains so evenly divided after nearly four years of the Bush administration. The Bush presidency, after all, is hardly a runaway success.

After 9/11 there was a groundswell of support behind the president. But that kind of spontaneous reaction is long gone. Now the economy is in a state of malaise, the budget deficit is soaring, Bush has made zero impact with his domestic policy agenda, and voters are ambivalent and anxious about foreign policy in general and the war in Iraq in particular.

But despite being subjected to the Bush presidency, Americans remain almost as evenly divided as they were in 2000, when the entire election hung on the fate of a few hanging chads in Florida.

The Democrats have failed to capitalise on Bush’s difficulties because they are either unwilling, or simply have no idea how to present a clear alternative to the incumbent president.

For instance, it took the maverick governor Howard Dean to even alert the Democrats to the fact that many Americans had, and continue to have, very serious misgivings about events in Iraq. Even armed with this knowledge, the Democrats have little idea what to do with it. Many voters say they dislike Bush because of what has happened in Iraq, but this doesn’t automatically translate into votes for Kerry. It is not at all clear what, if anything, Kerry would do differently.

The gay marriage ‘debate’ is another case in point. Many moderate Republicans sensed that Bush went too far when he called for a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage. On the eve of the Republican convention, vice president Dick Cheney – who is not known for his liberalism – tried publicly to distance himself from the president’s stance. But still Kerry has found this another difficult issue on which to lead. He is against the constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage – but is also against gay marriage. With nothing clear or unapologetic to say, the much-anticipated debate on the issue has never really taken off.

In recent weeks, rather than presenting the electorate with an alternative to Bush, Kerry has done everything possible to align himself with Bush policies. He now talks of himself as a defender of ‘conservative values’. And having heard so much about Kerry’s courageous military service, it’s easy to forget that his first claim to political fame in the 1970s was as a leading spokesman against the Vietnam War.

Rather than focusing on a clear alternative to Bush, Democrats have honed in on the president’s character. Democrats have spent the past four years lampooning Bush as a smirking and stupid redneck from Texas who is incapable of stringing two sentences together, let alone of leading a nation.

Now, with Kerry as the presidential candidate, that informal sneering at Bush has become the meat of the official Democrat presidential campaign.
When, for example, Kerry accepted his party’s nomination at the convention in Boston, he surrounded himself with Vietnam Swift Boat Veterans. He stressed his war record, his service to his country, his personal heroism, and let others talk of his bravery. Without mentioning Bush by name the message was clear to everyone – ‘contrast our guy to that untrustworthy draft dodger in the White House, and see which one is more upstanding’.

The Democrats’ intellectual snobbery is equally easy to detect. When Kerry talks about seeing issues like Iraq as ‘complex’ and needing ‘sensitivity’ it is a clear dig at the stupidity, simplicity and blundering actions of the current president.

Having made their man’s character their central campaigning weapon, Democrats assume that they have seized the moral high ground. They stress that they do not want to sink to negative campaigning. But in reality their entire campaign message is a thinly disguised negative character assault on Bush.

Recent events show that this strategy is not quite the winning formula the Democrats had hoped for.

For one thing, Republicans can also play the character assassination game. Kerry’s post-convention momentum suffered a serious blow when a small bunch of rich Republican vets from Texas got some money together to run a political ad that questioned his heroic version of events in Vietnam. No doubt their claims are without foundation, but having made character the central issue of the campaign it became extremely difficult for Democrats to distract the media from running with the story.

Democrats also fail to understand that their own disgust and distaste for the president is not, in fact, widely shared. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention Bush himself made light of the onslaught on his character when he joked: ‘You may have noticed I have a few flaws…. People sometimes have to correct my English. I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it. Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called “walking”.’

Having made light of his critics the central thrust of his message was simple: ‘Even when we don’t agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.’

With no substantial challenge to Bush’s policies over the past four years, the Democrats have bizarrely left the field wide open for Bush to rewrite history. With such opponents he may be able to brush over his past failings and attempt to rekindle the old passions aroused by the 9/11 attacks to carry the day.

With no actually political engagement between the two parties the election will remain tight. The two campaigns are likely to run along parallel tracks. Neither campaign can really ‘win’, as general opinion on issues will remain untouched. This will resolve nothing, and the near 50/50 political divide with in the US is likely to remain.

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Topics Politics


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